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The chip that could transform computing

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How Apple made these breakthroughs is an interesting business and technical story.

For decades, chipmaking giant Intel reigned as one of the most advanced technical companies in Silicon Valley.

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It was Intel co-founder Gordon Moore who famously predicted that computer chips would become increasingly powerful to unimaginable levels. And it was Intel’s products, the x86 line of microprocessors at the heart of almost every personal computer., the ones who turned Moore’s prophecy into an applicable “law” of technology. The promise that every year Intel’s new chips would be much faster than its old chips set the pace for advancements across the industry.

However, at some point in the last decade, Intel lost its way. He was caught off guard by new trends – the increasing utility of graphics processors, the widespread adoption of mobile devices – and besieged by a series of humiliating operational delays. But what has been even more surprising than the Intel’s stumbling block is the company that has surpassed it as the benchmark in terms of processors. In meetings with employees earlier this year, Pat Gelsinger, Intel’s incoming CEO at the time, was reluctant to even speak the enemy’s name. According to The Oregonian, Gelsinger derisively referred to the new leading chip company as “a lifestyle company in Cupertino.”

Cupertino, California, of course, is where Apple’s headquarters are located, whose focus on design, aesthetics, and functionality has often left it vulnerable to Gelsinger’s hint that its products aren’t actually that capable. rather, they are more of a fad. However, last month, Apple introduced new laptops built around its own custom-designed processors, the M1 Pro and M1 Max, which have made such teasing go completely absurd.

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The new MacBook Pro integrate 10-core chips and recover HDMI and SD ports

The first reviews of Apple’s new machines had been so enthusiastic – “the most powerful laptops I’ve ever seen,” “drastically better than they should be,” “they generally have enormous and absurd power” – that I was concerned that They will end up disappointing me when I use one and it will turn out to be as frustrating as all computers tend to be.

I have not been disappointed. They blew me away. I’ve been using a new MacBook Pro with Apple’s newest fastest chip, the M1 Max, for about two weeks now, and I can’t remember the last time a laptop wowed me this way. In fact, I don’t think a laptop has ever captivated me, because it’s just a computer.

However, this ridiculously fast laptop broadened my thinking about the future. In recent years, some in the tech industry worried that Moore’s Law was running out of steam. Experts theorized that, sometime nearby, microchips would begin to reach fundamental physical limits that would make future advancements in performance very difficult to achieve. And since processors are, in essence, the engines of computers, their looming limit also implied an inescapable limit on the usefulness of computing.

I called several experts to ask what Apple’s innovation tells us about the future of computing. The short answer? We still have a way to go before we hit a wall.

M1 chips make laptops as powerful as some of the fastest desktops in the world, yet so efficient that their battery life exceeds that of any other laptop. The chips portend a future absolutely saturated with computing power, with extremely powerful processors not only in traditional computers and smartphones, but also in cars, drones, virtual reality machines, and just about anything that runs on electricity.

How Apple made these breakthroughs is an interesting business and technical story. In 2008, almost a year after it launched the first iPhone, Apple bought a small semiconductor startup to make specialty chips for its phones. For many years, Intel chips were made mostly for stationary machines like servers and personal computers. To reach their maximum speeds, Intel processors had to consume a lot of electricity and generate a lot of heat. But Apple’s biggest products are portable and battery-powered, so consuming a lot of power wasn’t ideal. Its chip designers had to adopt a completely different strategy. Rather than maximize raw power, Apple sought to make power-optimized chips and efficiency.

The technical mechanisms Apple used to achieve this combination will sound like a “nerdy” tongue twister to anyone unfamiliar with semiconductor theory. But generally speaking, Apple systems use many specialized processing units and are optimized to run more “out of order” operations, a technical term that essentially means they can run more code simultaneously.

The result is something like the difference between a high-powered sports car and a Tesla. The sports car reaches high speeds with a huge engine that burns a lot of gasoline. The Tesla can reach even higher speeds while consuming less power because its electric motor is inherently more efficient than a gasoline engine. For years, Intel made sports cars; Apple’s great innovation was building the Tesla out of computer chips.

Apple also benefited from a huge economy of scale. Because the iPhone is one of the most profitable products of all time, the company was able to afford to invest billions in making custom chips, and then repurpose its iPhone chips for the iPad, Apple TV, and now Macs.

Apple’s investments have helped ignite a new career in the chip business. Intel is investing $ 20 billion in new chip manufacturing plants, and other chipmakers – Samsung and TSMC, which makes processors for Apple – are collectively investing hundreds of billions of dollars to increase capacity.

If I sound perhaps too excited about microchips, it’s because there hasn’t been much groundbreaking technical innovation in the tech industry in years. Facebook is dedicated to destroying democracies, Google is just sucking more money from ads, and every new iPhone is barely better than the last. on a gradual scale.

The Apple processors feel genuinely new. For better or for worse, the capabilities of our devices will dramatically improve in the years to come. Today’s fastest phones are more powerful than the computers of just a few years ago; Andrei Frumusanu, who covered Apple’s new processors for tech news website Anandtech, told me that he predicts that Apple will continue to make similar advances for at least the next decade.

Other tech companies will spend a lot of money to catch up. After seeing what Apple has done, Frumusanu said that “everyone is freaking out.” (I)

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